Podcasting 101, Part Three

by Larry Matthews

In previous installments, I compared podcasts to radio. All radio stations have, in one way or another, a programming philosophy and a particular purpose for the station. In radio parlance, this is called the format. In Washington, DC, for example, WTOP is an all-news station. Other stations are sports or talk or music. Within that designation are smaller elements of the format that are like the trim on a house. What kind of music? What age group is being targeted? How many commercial minutes per hour? That kind of thing.

In this installment, we’ll be talking about the importance of choosing a format for your podcast.

When it comes to program formats, podcasts are no different than radio. My podcasts, for example, are basic interviews. That’s my format. Other podcasts have fancier formats, featuring more “production” elements. For example, author CM Mayo has a podcast series called Marfa Mondays about a small town in West Texas. She treats her podcast like a radio show with a musical introduction, an announcer, and lots of gewgaws of sound.

Formats are subjective. There is no “right” way to format your podcast. I have a few suggestions and I will back them up with my experience as a radio programmer.

My experience goes way back to the glory days of AM rock radio, with its jingles, slogans, short songs, top ten, reverb on the microphones, the whole magilla (as they used to say). I once worked at an all-news station in Cleveland that had so many production elements — jingles, sounders, time tones, traffic themes, you name it — that the Plain Dealer, the city’s leading newspaper, called the station “a penny arcade.” That didn’t bother me, though, because at the time we were the top rated station in the market.

On the other end of the spectrum are NPR stations, whose announcers have a non-professional sound that evokes an image of the earnest neighbor who volunteers to read announcements at school. No jingles, no sounders, no time tones, no theme songs.

After years of ginning up the jingles, I now prefer a basic, clutter-free format for my podcasts. No musical intro, no theme songs, no announcer, no fancy editing. Why? I believe it’s easier on the ear. If I were twenty-five again I might think differently.

There is one overriding consideration as you format your podcast, and that is the listener. Production elements can be distracting if they are not done well and, in some cases, they can overwhelm your message. Too much production and the topic itself can be lost. I have listened to podcasts that had thirty-second musical intros, as though the opening music WAS the podcast. Trust me on this: almost no one will endure that much music while they wait for the show to begin.

If you want to use some kind of musical theme or intro, make it short. Ten seconds is about as long as you’ll get away with. Five seconds is better. The listeners are there for content, not production. Back in the days when the rock stations played jingles they were in that range. How long does it take to sing “WABC?”

You may point out that NPR’s All Things Considered has music between stories, which radio people call bumpers. Here’s why: the bumpers you hear are really there to provide technical aid for radio engineers. Stations across the country are breaking into, our out of, the show’s segments at designated points on the clock. But not every station hits the cues on time, so the music provides them with a small buffer.

The Basics of a Program Format

The basic elements of a format are show name, host name, guest name, and first question. One, two, three, and so on. You would be surprised how often podcasters miss these most basic elements, even though they see and hear them every day. Consider: “The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno with guest Kevin Bacon.” Show name, host name, guest name.

Once the introduction is done, bring your audience into the topic quickly. Forget long intros or stories about your day. Forget telling your audience your philosophy of the podcast, your background, how you hope they’ll enjoy it, and anything else not directly related to your guest and/or your topic. Keep it basic.

I run my own podcasts on a very basic format. “Welcome to the podcast. I’m Larry Matthews. Joining us is author James Patterson, who’s sold a hundred billion books and is now the richest person on Earth. Welcome. (Nice to be here) Tell us about your latest book.”

Boom, we’re off and running.

In other words, get to the point. Listeners will leave or stay within seconds. If they are there to hear James Patterson, they sure don’t want to hear me talk about how much I hope they like the podcasts or why I’m doing them. They get why I’m doing them; that’s why they’re there, after all.

There’s one other key bit of advice that has served broadcasters well for decades: program from the outside in, not from the inside out. Another version of this advice is, “Don’t broadcast to management.” Format your podcast from the point of view of the person who clicks on the “play” link, not from your own point of view or what you personally find interesting about either your guest or yourself. Many broadcasters have learned the hard way that programming to yourself is the route to a very small audience.

In a way, we’re really talking about customer service. Keep it short, keep it basic, and keep it focused. And even though it’s your podcast, it’s not about you. It’s about your guest.

I’ll say more about that in the next installment.

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